Friends often ask me, “How could you have grown up in segregated Richmond, Virginia in a stark separate-but-equal environment without witnessing overt signs of segregation?”
Their question stems from a truth I’ve shared with them: I have no memory of seeing whites-only and colored-only water fountains. No time when I was denied access to restaurants. No riding in the back of the bus. None of that. As a child, I had no understanding that my world was defined by race. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true.
Some suggest that my mind has blocked the negative images or memories.
I don’t believe that. I think there is a far more powerful explanation: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas, my parents. In hindsight, I know they went to great lengths, as many black parents did, to see to it that I never felt any level of second-class citizenship. Another thing: they did not talk about discrimination, at least not where I could hear. I think that was important in shaping my reality.
My mom would pack a delicious lunch for our trip to visit family in New York. Then halfway there, my dad would pull the car over to a roadside picnic area. No one commented that we were doing this because we couldn’t eat in restaurants along the way. My parents simply pulled out our lunch, put a tablecloth on the wooden picnic table, and we played games — looking for cars with license plates from different states — as we ate and enjoyed what we now think of as quality family time. And when my dad stopped at the Esso, now Exxon, service station to buy gas, we would go to the bathroom. I didn’t think anything of it. But his lifelong loyalty to Exxon was born from that company being the first to let blacks use the restroom facilities in their service stations, a reality that I learned from books, not from my dad telling me.
There was one childhood incident that probably was exposure to separate-but-equal, but I didn’t know it at the time. My mom and I had entered the train station to travel to visit relatives. I remember skipping ahead toward a seat. My mom took my hand and gently directed me to another area. I now suspect that she was leading me to the ‘colored’ area. No conversation, just a subtle re-direction. I don’t recall even noticing it at the time. The possibility/probability of this being a separate-but-equal memory only surfaced as an adult when friends questioned my experience of segregation as a child. Again, the important point was there was no preamble as I was being led away from where I was headed. At no time, did anyone tell me that there was something I couldn’t do or someplace I couldn’t go.
Of course, I lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school, but I didn’t know I was being denied anything. My community was lovely, and I never felt as supported in any educational environment as I did in that school. My point, simply, is that the harshness of segregation as a reality that makes someone superior to you never consciously entered my psyche. Was this level of insulation by my parents positive or did it cause me to have an unrealistic sense of the world? I’m not sure.
All I know is that when whites entered my world via integration, I didn’t fear them, nor did I dislike them. I did not feel that they were the persecutor and I was the victim. I think that is the most important point. Victims are powerless. Being a victim wears you down. You are continually looking for injustice, looking for where/how you have been wronged. It causes physical and mental stress. I am not saying that prejudice has not been a part of my life. Of course, it has, but that is not the frame that I start out with every day. Whites had, and have, more power than I do, but I have always approached my interactions with them as equals, even as a child. Now, as an adult, injustice surrounds me in the governmental processes and structures that have, with intentionality, disadvantaged me and my community. It is in the media that often portray negative images of black people. It is in the rhetoric of the current president of the United States. It is truly in the air I breathe. But, I am still not a victim.
My parents wisely, and bravely, chose to deflect—but not deny—segregation’s impact on me even as they raised me within its confines. They dealt with the reality of it, all the while telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do. Today, as I work for racial understanding and justice, I recognize that I was raised to be a daughter of the dream, never to be a victim.
25 Replies to “Never a Victim”
I have known Tamara for over 47 years, yet I did not realize that she did not notice the effects of segregation when she was growing up in Richmond. I am the same age (actually three months older), and I started life in Belleville, Illinois, a town near St. Louis, Missouri. Belleville did not have any overt signs of segregation. There were no segregated businesses, schools or other institutions. It was also very much a white community. The few black families were definitely an anomaly. I don’t remember having any friends or families of color in our neighborhood. My older brother’s cub scout pack did include one black child.
When I was eight years old my father was transferred to the gulf coast of Mississippi. Then I learned about segregation, and it was inescapable. Everywhere were signs that said either White or Colored. Restrooms in stores, water fountains, schools, and the local movie theaters were segregated. The “colored section” of the theater was the balcony, which meant that I couldn’t go up there. To me anyway, that is what it meant. To the black population it meant that they couldn’t sit downstairs. I was aware that things were different in Mississippi, but as a child I didn’t really question it. One time I went to get a drink of water from the water fountain. Someone had spit gum out into the White fountain, so I just used the Colored fountain. No one noticed, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. As an adult I wonder if a black child had used the White fountain what would have happened. Also, when I walked down the sidewalk, Black adults would step off the sidewalk and into the street so they would not be in my way. In my young mind I tucked away these memories, then brought them back out years later to wonder about them and the injustice of those incidents. I never saw anyone yelling racial epithets or being overtly rude to a person of color, but those written signs and unspoken laws had an effect on me. I began to realize the absurdity of racism and that segregation was wrong.
Joyce, thanks for sharing your experience. Conversations about race are new to us like they are to so many.
Really need to talk to you. I have a picture of a Charity girl that no one recalls. May be related to you.
Sent from my iPhone
Probably! Can you scan it and send it to me — email@example.com. I won’t be in Richmond for a bit.
Beautifully expressed and such an interesting perspective. I remember the first time I saw two “Ladies” rooms and two water fountains in the Williamsburg Bus Station … thinking, “why would you have two sets of restrooms?” Then it dawned on me!
And you are the only other person I know to have a mother named EDNA.
My mom was truly not in love with her name :). Thanks for reading and for sharing your memory.
Powerful insight, Tamara. It must have been a one line for your parents to walk, but they navigated the situation well to keep you protected and maintain your pride. I think about similar issues in the Me, Too movement today. I never want my granddaughter to feel less than, but how do we do that and yet keep her alert to discrimination? And young girls of color face a doubly difficult situation .
Thanks Denise. Parenting and grandparenting is tough. We really are leaving lifelong imprints.
Powerful story Tamara! Thank you for
sharing your truth and revealing the profound love your parents had for their daughter. You were blessed that they had the wisdom and determination to protect you and nurture you to never be a victim. RIP Edna and Howard …. you did good!
Thanks, Terri. The older I get, the more I appreciate my parents.
Thank you, Tamara, for this blog and these posts. They are informative and so well written. As the years go by, I realize that my years at John Marshall taught me more than I realized at the time.
I feel the same way, particularly as I take the time to really reflect.
I enjoy reading your stories.
One of the most important things a parent can give their child is the gift of being prepared for the world while still shielding them from the worst aspects of what goes on in that world. That buffer gives a child not just security, but an environment to grow up with the right mindset. This is a wonderful piece, Tamara. Thanks for sharing with us.
Thanks, Dennis. I feel the same way. My parents gave me security and a sense of possibility.
Another great entry and once again, thanks for triggering our memories about an important aspect of our development that shaped how we see the world. I suspect, much like your parents, mine, and many other families did, they shielded us from discrimination, prejudice and other forms of racist behavior associated with being raised in the south. I hope it has made us as adults better able to discern, stand up to and fight for injustice — in all its ugly forms.
Thanks, Janice. I do hope that the blogs provoke memories for some, understanding for others, and a commitment in all to work for racial justice.
I lived in Newport, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia. My paternal grandparents were from South Carolina. As part of our reality each side of the family shared stories their stories. Additionally, they used the Green Book (the Negroes guide to traveling)
Thanks, Theresa. I wonder how many folks have heard of the Green Book. For some black families, the Green Book was essential for interstate travel, providing info on lodging and restaurants that would accommodate them. Here’s a link for more info — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book.
I have an older version. Thanks
Wow — thank you for your inspiring and educational words, Tamara. Growing up in an all-white world, “others” to me were neighbors who went to public schools when I went to Catholic schools. I’m so fortunate that my world has expanded as I’ve met so many amazing people. And, I’ve got so much more to learn. Thank you for being in my life!
Thank YOU, Mark. You are a part of the change we hope to see in the world.
Thank you Mark for following and for being the person who you are. Your life is a wonderful example.
Another rich post from you, Tamara — thank you! Growing up in an all-white Detroit suburb left me thinking that everyone of every color had the same experience as I did: good schools, fair police, recreational opportunities, enough to eat, comfortable home and neighborhood. I was in college (mid-’60’s) before I began to see the depth of racism, the impact of segregation. Willful blindness? My learning continues………….